I remember when, in the midst of finishing up my thesis (a labor of love), someone said that doing a creative thesis must be easy because it didn’t require any research.
What? I was floored. I’d done a lot of research for that manuscript, and I continue to. Even writing a fantasy novel requires research. I’ve studied everything from mythology to martial arts to swords to types of knots. But since I write urban fantasy that bridges our world and other worlds, much of my research is setting specific.
We can’t always write novels based in places we’ve lived. I love where I grew up (Western PA) and where I live now (Virginia), but I’m not prepared to base every story in those places. Sometimes, the story dictates a different setting.
When you create your own world, it’s coming from your head (or the creative ether, however you look at it), so you don’t have to worry which highway a character would take to get from point A to point B or how long the drive is. As long as your world is clear and consistent within a story or series, you’re good to go.
But place is a strong and emotional thing. It’s not just a matter of fact-checking. We form deep, emotional connections to places we love and live in, and those seemingly tiny details can draw readers out of a story if they’re not correct.
What kinds of details do we need to worry about when researching a setting?
Geography: It’s not the most exciting stuff, but we need to know the highways and byways. If your characters take Route 101 and there isn’t any such road in that region, people familiar with that place will know. The names of districts, famous landmarks, parks, rivers, etc. are important to people from the area (or who simply love that place), so doing research–even if it’s just a thorough use of Google Maps or Earth–is essential. Looking at pictures can also help you capture the essence of a place. The Shenandoah Valley and the Great Smokies feel and look different, for example.
Flora and fauna: I grew up in the country, so this kind of thing is important to me. I want to hear about the cherry blossoms, the daffodils, the white-tailed deer, the birdsongs, the coyote yelps, or the jack-o-pines. I highly recommend books like “The North American Wildlife Guide.” It’s helpful to know the range of a given species, for example. But we also need to know about things like the seasons (my hometown in PA frequently gets snow in late March and April; where a friend lives in New Mexico, it was 100 degrees last week) or the common types of birds, wildlife, and trees (lots of pines in one place, a plethora of birches in another).
Local flavor: I love to travel, and my favorite part is that every place has its own unique flair. I love tiny beach towns with their hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurants, big cities with everything to offer and their famous locales, college towns where even the license plates have school spirit. The setting should never overwhelm the story. (If we’re in San Francisco, you don’t have to shout it. Ubiquitous references to the Golden Gate Bridge aren’t necessary.) Subtle is necessary, but authenticity in tiny details is key. It’s everything from architecture (the houses in a Western PA mining town are not the same style you’d find in New Hampshire, for example) to roadways (PA is in an unending state of road construction) to food. Keep it authentic, but be sure to avoid cliches and stereotypes. If you’re going to go for colloquialisms, keep them subtle and remember that not everyone from a region uses them, or uses them frequently. (Personal disclaimer: My cousins used to knock my accent, so, though I’m proud of my heritage, I’m a bit sensitive about this subject.)
Making it up: It’s okay to make up a shop, a hotel, or a restaurant. A made-up street or address is useful to avoid using a real address. There’s nothing wrong with inventing a new-age shop or a burger joint to insert into your story, as long as it fits into that town.
The law: Every state (and country, if you’re going global) not only has its own unique flavor, but its own set of laws. Some states (or cities) are stricter about enforcing speed limits. Certain types of weapons are illegal in some states. Pennsylvania doesn’t have a law requiring bikers to wear motorcycle helmets, but many states do. Everything from traffic laws to marriage laws to statutes of limitations varies from one state to another. Legal intricacies mostly come into play if you’re writing suspense or a legal thriller, but knowing the law in your chosen location is important.
Tiny details: There are other details that require research. For example, in MADE OF SHADOWS, the heroine, Zoe, played rugby in college. I had to make sure that the school I chose as her alma mater actually had a women’s rugby team. (Not every school does.) If your character works in or has studied a specialized field, making sure that university actually offers the degree is a must. If your character has a specialization in ceramics, biomedical engineering, or Celtic studies, it’s best to make sure that university offers that degree program. If we goof on the minutiae, our readers might start to question other parts of the story.
So besides this wonderful thing called the Internet and our stacks of books, how do we ensure that we’re getting it right? Any suggestions? As for me, I might not be the most adventurous person out there, but I’m always game for a road trip.